Book Review: American Catholic by D. G. Hart

Key words: Catholic, Americanism, History, JFK, Second Vatican Council

This book is a helpful history of Catholics in America during the last century. Hart discusses the key tension for American Catholics: trying to reconcile the American ideals of democracy and religious liberty with traditional Catholic teaching on submitting to church hierarchy. Catholic teaching on submission to the pope seems to contradict the American political system of people voting for leaders. 

The primary example of this American Catholic tension is John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic American president. Imagine this scenario: If the Pope gave JFK a direct command, does JFK have to submit to the Pope? This question does not just apply to the president, it also applies to every American Catholic. What do they do if the Pope commands something? Every American Catholic has to answer this question in some way. From this, we see that American Catholics have to live in tension with a political system that cuts against the grain of Catholic teaching.  

Hart does a good job in working through JFK’s presidency and the Catholic tensions there. This material was wonderful. JFK was a key turning point in American history. One historian described it as the end of “Protestant America.” Hart discusses the issues around JFK’s funeral service which was a traditional Catholic service in Latin. This ceremony was rather strange for much of Protestant America. At one point in the funeral, Jackie Kennedy genuflected before Cardinal Cushing and kissed his hand. While this action was a common Catholic practice, some were rather offended at it. What did this genuflecting mean? Was the President less than a Catholic Cardinal? What about separation of Church and State? 

I think Hart is at his best when he is working through specific historical moments, like these around JFK’s funeral.

The middle section of the book was slow and it seemed to wander a bit. In the middle part, Hart focused on the ideas of various writers rather than specific historical events. The history of ideas is important but it wasn’t always clear why these ideas were being discussed. If Hart had grounded the ideas in specific moments in American history, that would have helped draw out the tensions he was highlighting. For example, Hart could have discussed other key Catholics in American society and how they were wrestling with this tension in their lives. Jim Lovell, of the Apollo Space program, comes to my mind. How did his Catholicism shape his work with NASA?

I was also hoping to see Hart explain more of how Catholics influenced the rise of the Evangelical Right and the Pro-life movement. It seems this tension that Hart is discussing applies there also. It is also significant that many Catholic politicians disregard Catholic teaching on Abortion and Marriage. Hart did not get into that material very much. He referenced some ideas in that direction but not specific events or moments.

The end of the book was helpful as Hart covers more recent Catholic figures, such as Richard Neuhaus and Ross Douthat. In the last section, Hart shows how the tension for American Catholics has not gone away. He highlights this with his discussions on Neuhaus, First Things, and president Bush.    

In summary, this quote highlights the key issue for American Catholics: “There is no longer one way to do theology, to worship at Mass, to confess sin, or to prayer,” Dolan wrote. “There are various ways of being Catholic, and people are choosing the style that best suits them.” Loc. 3387 of 4362

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